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PMs became 'warlords' of distinctly Canadian stamp

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Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars

By Tim Cook

Allen Lane, 472 pages, $34

WHILE the two world wars of the 20th century were contested far from Canadian soil, they were nevertheless traumatic and seminal events in Canadian history.

More than 60,000 Canadians died in the First World War, 45,000 in the Second World War.

Canada's sacrifice during the first war cemented its status as an autonomous nation within the British Empire, a status that would be codified in the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

Canada's wartime prime ministers -- Conservative Robert Borden in the first and Liberal Mackenzie King in the second -- are the focus of this study by Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Cook has produced a well-paced but conventional narrative, which really doesn't offer any new information.

If there is novelty, it is probably Cook's contention that Borden and King must be seen as "warlords."

Few would have viewed these figures as war leaders. They were unmilitary in training and education; they were not interested in military strategy and history; neither had personal connections to the armed forces.

Yet they were thrust into the role of wartime leadership, and successfully oversaw Canada's war effort, guiding the Dominion to victory.

Thus, Cook argues, both King and Borden became warlords of a distinctly Canadian stamp: "Both confronted the complexities of financing war, the challenges of dealing with allies, the management of internal dissent, and the agonizing appraisal of how far the nation could be pushed in the pursuit of victory."

A theme of Cook's account is the immense strain of wartime leadership on both Borden and King and their respective cabinets. In 1916, Borden wrote that he was "very tired and weary of this life." King expressed similar sentiments in his diary: "sick at heart... The strain is terrible -- mental fatigue and physical combined, but depression as well."

In their conduct of war, there was one profound difference between Borden and King. Borden subordinated partisan considerations to the war effort.

He enacted conscription, knowing that it would damage his party's fortunes in Quebec, but believing that it was essential to victory for the Allies.

King, on the other hand, was a consummate politician who was loath to alienate Quebec and its votes that kept him in power. His every action, before and during wartime, was calculated to mollify Quebec. For King, domestic politics trumped the imperatives of war.

In this vein, Cook makes an intriguing observation without elaborating. He suggests that German dictator Adolf Hitler, pursuing an aggressive policy of expansion in the 1930s, may have "taken note if Britain had been backed strongly by the dominions."

In other words, a cohesive empire, with mother country and dominions acting as one on issues of foreign and defence policy, may have cowed Hitler.

But King, with his eye on Quebec, had done more than anyone to undermine imperial unity, particularly at the Imperial Conference of 1937.

A minor stylistic point: Cook uses the terms "astonish" or "astonishing" at least 13 times, which is astonishing.

There is nothing groundbreaking about this book, but Cook convincingly argues that Borden and King were Canadian "warlords." These wartime prime ministers, Cook writes, deserve clearer understanding by Canadians; this study will certainly contribute to such understanding.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 J7

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